The Naatya Ensemble: Traditional, Educational, and Enjoyable 
by Kevin Jon Williams, Philadelphia, PA 
November 18, 2003   

It takes a special talent to present an advanced art form to an audience that has different levels of expertise, but Shoba Sharma, the founder and artistic director of the Naatya dance ensemble, has found a way.  The Naatya ensemble ( performs Bharatha Natyam, an Indian classical dance that traces its roots to the Natya Sastra, a text on Hindu dance from over two millennia ago.

The ensemble recently completed engagements in two prominent venues in Center City, Philadelphia: the Dance Boom 2003 festival at the Wilma Theater and more recently the Udavum Karangal benefit at the Kimmel Center.  In each case, the audience contained individuals familiar with classical dance and its ancient Hindu origins; Westerners who are for the most part less familiar; and younger Indians or US-born Americans of Asian Indian ancestry whose cultural links to this rich tradition may not be as strong as they could be. 

Because each dance tells a story, the key to a diverse audience is a short, crisp explanation from Sharma before each dance. Importantly, during her explanation, she demonstrates dance steps that convey events in the narrative. 

The benefit at the Kimmel Center comprised three dances performed by Sharma with 10 members of Naatya.  Each dance focused on a major Hindu deity, first Shiva the Destroyer and Lord of Dance, then the child Krishna, who is an incarnation of Vishnu the Preserver, and finally a dance hymn in salutation to the ten incarnations of Vishnu.  It was a good mix of style and mood.  The dance depiction of Shiva showed him rescuing the world by swallowing deadly poison, and then himself being rescued by his wife, Parvathi, who placed her hand on his throat to stop the poison from spreading.  The depiction of the child Krishna was playful, as he raided his neighbor’s pantry and swiped clothing left on a riverbank by village girls who had gone bathing.  The dance hymn to ten avatars of Vishnu was the most solemn and elegant of the three, focusing on the struggle against injustice. 

The audience was absolutely captivated, including my 11-year-old daughter, who sat next to me.  The costumes were intricate and traditional.  The dancers performed graceful, complex routines, involving precise body, hand, and eye movements.  But it was all quite easy to follow.  These are wonderful stories, and they come alive with the dance. 

The performance by Shoba Sharma and the Naatya ensemble at the Kimmel Center was for the benefit of Udavum Karangal, a network of orphanages founded by S Vidyakar, who was himself an orphan.  Other items on the program included a fashion presentation by Anand Jon, brief remarks by the writer and director M Night Shyamalan, and then presentations of citations from Mayor Street and Governor Rendell to Vidyakar, who came from India for this event.  It was a remarkable spectacle. 

Dr. Kevin Williams is a graduate of Harvard University and the Johns Hospital Medical School. He is presently Professor of Medicine at Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, PA. Dr. Williams is an avid follower of classical Western music and Indian classical dance.